Jund al-Aqsa- a jihadi group founded in 2013 and officially independent but in practice closer to Jabhat al-Nusra with several al-Qa'ida operatives in its senior ranks- has recently fallen into controversies regarding its relationship with the Jaysh al-Fatah ('Army of Conquest') coalition in Idlib province in which it has played a key role since the spring of this year. Arguably the main issue has been suspicion regarding the group's sentiment towards the Islamic State. Though Jaysh al-Fatah denied earlier rumours of thedefection of 50 members of Jund al-Aqsa to the Islamic State, a more recent dispute has come up regarding the question of whether to actively fight the Islamic State. Jund al-Aqsa, like most ostensibly 'third-way' jihadi groups, has generally opted for the stance of neutrality for the sake of preventing 'fitna', only resorting to engagement if attacked directly. This is so even as Jund al-Aqsa officially rejects the Islamic State's Caliphate declaration and makes clearer than ever towards the end of its latest statement here the leadership's ideological alignment with al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In these respects, Jund al-Aqsa's position is very similar to that of Jaysh Muhammad, another ostensibly 'third-way' group dating back to 2012 and originating from the Azaz area. Though it declares neutrality in the fight between Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra and has been suspected of Islamic Sate sympathies, the actual leadership ideological alignment is with Zawahiri- made publicly clear recently even as local testimony from Azaz shows this was leader Abu Obeida al-Masri's allegiance all along.
As it so happens, the insistence on actively fighting the Islamic State, held up in particular by Jaysh al-Fatah component Ahrar al-Sham (a Syrian Salafi group), has proven to be one of the reasons for Jund al-Aqsa's newly announced withdrawal from Jaysh al-Fatah. In the statement, Jund al-Aqsa also reveals its more hardline approach to working with other groups in contrast to Jabhat al-Nusra, as it cites as a reason for withdrawal from Jaysh al-Fatah the disagreements with the non-jihadi Syrian components of the coalition on governance and their supposed lack of insistence on Shari'a as the sole basis for legislation. In this regard, Jund al-Aqsa specifically points to a statement last month on UN envoy to Syria Steffan De Mistura's plans regarding a political solution, in which the signatories affirmed the need to "respect the will of the Syrian people that alone possesses the authority to establish the future constitution and decide on its clauses, and no imposition of preconditions that take away its will." Signatories to that September statement from Jaysh al-Fatah included Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham and Liwa al-Haq. Though these groups are undeniably Islamist, there is a clear distance between them and Jund al-Aqsa.
At least one other component of Jaysh al-Fatah, which is not a signatory to the aforementioned statement, seems reluctant to insist openly on an Islamic state/Shari'a governance alone for the time being. This group is Ajnad al-Sham (not to be confused with the "Islamic Union for Ajnad al-Sham," which did sign the statement and is primarily Damascus-based). Ajnad al-Sham was established in September 2013 and primarily operates in Idlib and Hama governorates, having worked alongside Jabhat al-Nusra long before Jaysh al-Fatah was set up. Though Ajnad al-Sham is sometimes characterized as 'jihadist', one media office official who spoke with me in December 2014 said the following on the group's goals: "Our aims and project are only to bring down the Syrian regime. This talk [of an Islamic state] is before its time. I have told you we are engaged in fighting with the regime, defending ourselves and our honour. As for the future, no one knows but God." More recently, the group's Skype account affirmed the following to me: "The first goal is to bring down this immoral regime. After the regime, God creates what He wills." Ajnad al-Sham, which has also hosted foreign fighters from Malaysia in its ranks, may well be concealing hardline Islamist goals under these pronouncements, but the lack of open display and insistence on such objectives at the present time surely annoys Jund al-Aqsa.
Below is the full statement translated by me:
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Praise be to God, the High, the Great, the Powerful, the Capable, and prayers and peace be upon the Messenger, the Warner [Prophet Muhammad], and on his good family and companions, as well as the followers and whoso has followed them with ihsan to the Day of Judgment. As for what follows:
For the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'at are a birthmark in the Ummah of Islam and are a people of Truth, not error. They are masters of justice, not injustice, and followers of the law, not arbitrary whims, and masters of 'ilm [Islamic knowledge], not ignorance. And they are a middle path amid those bent to extremes, firmness amid those disturbed, and authenticity amid those who are soft [in religion]. Indeed the worst thing by which the Ummah has deteriorated is its division and disagreement- that incurable illness by which an Ummah is not afflicted except that its spirit departs, and its enemies gain authority over it. The Sheikh of Islam- Ibn Taymiyya (may God have mercy on him)- says: "And this causing of division that arose from the Ummah- its 'ulama, mashayakh, amirs and elders- is what necessitated its enemies to gain authority over it. And that is in their abandoning the implementation of obedience to God and His Messenger. For when the people abandon some of what God has commanded for them, enmity and hostility befall them. When people separate, they are obstructed and destroyed. But when they gather, they are just and rule. For indeed the gathering is a mercy, but separation a torment."
God Almighty has said: "And cling to God's rope entirely and don't separate." Al-Tabari- may God Almighty have mercy on him- has said: "And by that the One whose praise be Exalted means: and hold fast to the causes of God entirely. By that the one whose mention is of the Almighty wants: Hold fast to the religion of God by which He has commanded you and His covenant which He entrusted to you, in His book to you from harmony and gathering on the word of Truth and submitting to the command of God."
And the Prophet (SAWS) said: "I have left for you two things after which you will not be in error: the Book of God and my Sunnah"- Sahih al-Jami'.
According to what has happened and is happening in the arena of al-Sham, we in the group of Jund al-Aqsa want to clarify our Shari'i stance that we have built on the basis of what we believe, profess to God Almighty, and present before our entire Ummah and its distinguished 'ulama. And our statement comprises the following points:
1. Jaysh al-Fatah: it was from God's favour upon us that we were among the founders of this army.
2. Our recent departure from Jaysh al-Fatah has its reasons and motives, among them:
a) The fact that some of the factions in Jaysh al-Fatah support projects that contravene the Islamic Shari'a. That becomes clear in the signature to the recent De Mistura statement that stipulates in its sixth clause: "respecting the will of the Syrian people that alone possesses the authority to establish the future constitution and decide on its clauses, and no imposition of preconditions that take away its will"!! And other things besides from what came in the clauses of the aforementioned charter, and other things we see in contravention of the law, like welcoming the Turkish intervention and defeatist speeches.
b) The continuing pressure upon us to fight the Dawla [Islamic State] group within Jaysh al-Fatah from Ahrar al-Sham in particular even as we have distinguished our stance from the Dawla group in the fifth point of this statement.
3. Returning to Jaysh al-Fatah: in principle we have no objection to returning to Jaysh al-Fatah but after correcting the disagreement as follows:
a) Issuing a Shari'i covenant for Jaysh al-Fatah with support from the 'ulama and embracing all members of Jaysh al-Fatah.
b) Issuing a statement in the name of Jaysh al-Fatah on fighting the Americans and Russians who are fighting us and whoso supports them.
c) All factions of Jaysh al-Fatah must make clear their announced and public stance [distinguishing] from projects contrary to the rule of Shari'a.
d) In the event of the arising of disagreement- God forbid- between the factions of Jaysh al-Fatah, the matter must be referred to the 'ulama of the Ummah to arbitrate on it.
4. Our stance regarding unity: we have not been for a day an obstacle in the uniting of ranks and gathering Muslims on the ruling of the law in al-Sham. And whoso accuses us of that, we ask him for proof and evidence.
5. Our Shari'i stance regarding the Dawla group: we do not recognise their Caliphate as convened and it has no validity. And we disavow to God Almighty from what they have fallen into regarding takfir against Muslims and unjustly spilling their blood. And we do not support them from the trouble they have caused in splitting the ranks, declaring the 'ulama incompetent, and declaring the bloodshed halal. We consider this extremism, wrongdoing and aggression. As for repelling their aggression in regions in which we are present, it is a legitimate right for us. So we will defend ourselves and the Muslims against their aggression. This is a Shari'i obligation with no means to avoid it.
And we call on the Dawla group to hold a hudna [ceasefire] to stop the infighting between them and the Islamic factions, and expend efforts and direct arms at the taghut of al-Sham [Assad regime] and the taghut of Iraq [Iraqi government].
And before concluding we have some stances to take:
The first stance: with the Sheikh of the Mujahideen today and master of distinguished virtue Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri- may God protect him, nurture him and establish him on truth till the day He meets him. God Almighty has said: "And be patient, and your patience is only through God: do not grieve over them and do not despair over what they conspire. Indeed God is with those who fear him and those who do good" [Qur'an 16:127-8].
The second stance: with the Islamic Ummah in general and our people in Hama in particular. Indeed we continue on the path of jihad and fighting the tughat, and to Hama we are coming by God's permission [referring to the new Hama counter-offensive launched by Jaysh al-Fatah and other rebels].
The third stance: with the 'ulama of the Ummah- the lamps of the darkness, and banners of guidance, whose power God has raised and whom He has distinguished over the rest of creation. Oh inheritors of the Prophets, Allahu Allah in al-Sham and its people, indeed the arena of al-Sham is in greater need of you than ever. And we in Jund al-Aqsa will not break off a matter without you by God's permission and we stretch our hands to you, so don't withhold advice and direction from us.
And in conclusion, this is what we wanted to clarify pushing back against the accusations and in advice to the Ummah, asking the Lord- Almighty and Exalted is He- to bring harmony between our hearts and correct them among us, and to guide us in that which has differed from the Truth, and to give victory to Islam and its people and lower shirk [idolatry] and its people. Indeed He is the guardian of that and capable over it. God's peace and blessings be upon our Prophet Muhammad, his family and companions.
9 Muharram 1437 AH
Corresponding to 23 October 2015